Li Xueyue couldn't find it in herself to respond. She kept quiet until the only thing she could hear was the erratic thumping of his heart, wild and unrhythmic. She never expected to be the one to hear a sound like this.
"Let's go?" Yu Zhen asked, purposely brushing off his previous statement. He thought she might not have heard him from how tightly he had embraced her, but the astonishment written all over her face said otherwise.
"R-right. The merchants are in town," Li Xueyue stuttered, avoiding eye contact with him.
Li Xueyue knew she needed to sort out her feelings first before she responded with foolish talks of love. It had driven away one man already. Was she impatient? Was she greedy to want the purest form of love and devotion?
"A majority of them are supposedly from Hanjian. My father allowed Wuyi to trade with us," Yu Zhen informed her, never once bringing up the matter regarding the pendant he had left behind. It was important to him and would grant him access to nearly anywhere that he pleased. He hoped she would hold onto it dearly and keep it safe.
"And vice versa," Li Xueyue concluded for him while she followed him out of her own house. She was surprised that he learned the complicated layout of this house so quickly. How many times had he come here? Once? Twice? She didn't know.
"Hey, why were you in the manor yesterday?" Li Xueyue asked him whilst he surveyed their surroundings.
"You remembered." Yu Zhen smiled down at her, his frame shielding her from the blinding sun that cast a brilliant glow upon his body.
"I thought it was a dream…" Li Xueyue trailed off. "You accidentally left something behind."
She awkwardly cleared her throat. "I-I'll give it back to you when you visit again," she stuttered.
"Wuyi has a tradition doesn't it? Though I think it's quite stupid, I figured you might like to follow it," Yu Zhen commented, tugging her in the long direction leading to the center of the lively Capital.
"We're not going to ride a carriage?" Li Xueyue asked, her eyes snapped to their entwined hands.
Li Xueyue didn't realize they were holding hands the entire time they strolled from her room to the entrance. Instantly, she looked around her and saw the people accompanying them were a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar faces. His servants and guards were easily noticeable by their different clothing and the evident display of weapons on the men. She had no doubt there were more hidden underneath their dark clothing.
"I can offer you something else to ride."
"Be serious!" she hissed, her eyes widened at his shameless insinuations.
Yu Zhen flashed her a cheeky little smirk before placing two fingers together and whistling through it. Her brows knitted together in confusion and a minute later, she heard it—the thunderous hooves, swift and steady, racing her way. She had expected a hoard of horses but there was only one. It was a darling color of roasted chestnuts.
"We're riding my horse. What were you thinking?" he asked her with a serious expression on his face.
She opened and closed her mouth like a gaping fish out of water. "I thought we were not going to ride anything to town and walk there instead. That's why, I uh, said, to be serious with your plans."
"Right." Yu Zhen nodded with a dubious expression.
"L-let's just hop on."
Yu Zhen's eyes twinkled at the double meaning of her words. She intently stared at him, waiting for him to point it out. But he was the bigger person here, literally, and wanted to provoke her even more. "You first."
Li Xueyue rolled her eyes and strolled to the magnificent beast in front of her.
"Wait, I forgot. Ladies require a stool for help." Yu Zhen waved his hand, gesturing for a servant to find one.
"No need." Li Xueyue released his hand and stood towards the side of the horse's head. She gave it a soft pat on the side of its face and when it snorted in reassurance, she took it as an invitation.
"Are you sure? She's quite tall and I needed help the first time I—"
In one smooth and confident motion, Li Xueyue had hopped onto the horse with ease. It was as if she had rode it longer than he had.
Yu Zhen rapidly blinked in surprise. 'Xiao Lizi you traitor!' he cursed inside his head, remembering the first time he had come across this wild horse. Xiao Lizi was an obnoxious horse which did not let him ride her for weeks on end until trust was gained. It had taken a lot of training, begging, and even treat bribing for Xiao Lizi to let Yu Zhen onto her back.
"S-she's usually not this nice you know. You're just lucky. Watch, next time, she won't let you on," Yu Zhen warned her, approaching his horse only for it to snort in reply and back away.
"Xiao Lizi, you're just sexist!" he groaned, reaching a hand out for his own horse only to be rejected again.
"Or maybe it doesn't like two people riding on it." Li Xueyue smirked. "Or it doesn't like its incompetant owner."
"I'll have you know, she's undeniably loyal to me and loves me to the core." Yu Zhen snorted, attempting to pat his horse only for her to stomp the ground in protest.
"Sure she does." Li Xueyue snickered, reaching down to pet the horse. "Good girl."
"That's my job." He scowled, crossing his arms like the sore loser he was.
"Doesn't seem like it," she retorted.
"Well, today is just your lucky day," he muttered.
"Sure," she said.
"And that's the end of discussion," he deadpanned.
"Great," he grounded out.
"Fantastic." She rolled her eyes.
"You know, I can do this all day," Yu Zhen commented, staring down his horse who simply snorted in reply and flicked her tail.
"Aww poor you." Li Xueyue snickered, hopping off his horse without hesitation. He watched her through narrowed eyes as she affectionately caressed the side of Xiao Lizi's face.
"You have such an adorable nickname," she informed the horse.
Yu Zhen smirked in satisfaction, proudly jutting his chin in the air. "I know—"
"Too bad your incompetent owner has no creativity and named you after the nut that your fur coating looks like ."
"I have great competence," Yu Zhen said through gritted teeth, his eyes sharpened just for her snide remarks.
"And he likes to talk to himself. Poor thing, you've suffered." Li Xueyue placed a sympathetic hand on her chest, nodding as if she understood Xiao Lizi's congruent snorts.
Li Xueyue yelped in response when a pair of muscular arms wrapped over her waist, hoisting her in the air.
"What are you doing?" So much for being mindful of their public reputation!
Yu Zhen settled her a few feet away from the horse.
Li Xueyue blinked when she saw the slight pout on his face and the sulking expression of a sore loser. She snickered in response, leaning up to pinch both of his cheeks.
"Aw, is someone mad that he finally lost to me?"
"At least you have the decency to say 'finally,'" he grumbled out, earning a small fit of giggles from her.
He could've sworn his heart abnormally jumped. There was a weird and uncomfortable feeling in his stomach, a sensation that he had never experienced before.
"I'm only saying it to save your wounded ego."
"It wasn't wounded," he muttered, his arms loosely wrapped behind her. "I was just giving you mercy from my teasing."
"Does that make you happy?" she mused.
"Does your victory make you?" he retorted.
"So you do admit it was a victory." Li Xueyue grinned up at him, the first time she had shown him such an expression.
Yu Zhen was momentarily awestruck by it, his eyes widened at the unexpected attack straight to his heart. He responded by grabbing her cheek and then tugging it, earning a sharp kick to his shin.
He grunted in protest. "I have a cat who kicks harder than you."
"Wouldn't want to break your leg, Commander."
"Oh please, don't flatter yourself, Princess."
"It's not flattery if it's the truth."
Yu Zhen rolled his eyes, the corner of his lips twitched. "If it makes you happy, then sure."
"Then nevermind," he grumbled.
Li Xueyue wished she could wipe the smile off of her face, but she couldn't. She was either a lunatic for allowing herself to allow this to happen, or she was simply in the first stage of a... optimistic idea.
And when Li Xueyue saw his smile, soft and gentle for her and no one else, she knew right then and there, that she did not mind the outcomes of this situation.
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